“Alternative facts” are bad enough, but we’re facing something far more serious: alternative worldviews in which up is down, future is past and all bets are off. Simply reacting to the most outrageous lies is not strategically smart enough. We need to work more seriously on a more comprehensive response — even as we need to become more sensitive to how far the inversions of reality have spread, and what ends they serve.
For example, the day before taxes were due, NPR reported on an IPSOS poll that found that a 44 percent plurality of Americans mistakenly believed that the richer pay more now than they did in 1980, when the top marginal income tax rate was 70 percent —compared to 39.6 percent today. Among Republicans, 52 percent believe this false picture, compared to just 28 percent who don’t.
Democrats, in contrast, were almost evenly split, 39 percent to 43 percent. This bizarre distortion helps explain why Republicans always push for tax cuts, and are doing so even now, above and beyond their donors’ obvious self-interest: It fits how the majority of their base sees the world and at the same time divides the Democrats, who remain confused and divided. Republicans would be crazy not to push for tax cuts, given this distribution of false belief and their utter unconcern with real-world consequences.
There’s also the fact that conservatives never stop complaining about the "tax burden" and "government waste." As Matt Grossman and David Hopkins argue in "Asymmetric Politics" (Salon stories here and here), the Democratic Party is a coalition of interest groups, while the Republicans are a vehicle for the conservative movement. So it makes sense that Republican politicians would repeat such conservative messages incessantly, while Democrats don't devote nearly as much energy to countering them, or even developing the language to do so. Given the persistence of such messaging, and the related distribution of accurate and wildly inaccurate views, the Trump-touted return of Laffer Curve logic I recently wrote about makes perfect sense.
The false perception of top tax rates wasn’t an isolated finding — even in the same poll. It’s just one of multiple examples that help to define an alternative worldview whose pseudo-facts are inverted. In that worldview, there actually is a rational basis supporting the GOP’s agenda in general, and even President Donald Trump’s chaotic and incoherent articulation of it. This illusionary basis provides a specious foundation for the channeling of fears that make clear-headed reasoning that much more difficult.
Other important examples are the wildly exaggerated perceptions of anti-white discrimination or anti-Christian discrimination. Or Trump's repeated assertions (at the Republican convention, on the campaign trail and as president) that the crime rate today is historically high, because of some combination of Barack Obama's policies, illegal immigration and the nonexistent "Ferguson effect."
These mistaken beliefs aren’t random or accidental, nor are they reducible to “fake news,” although that can certainly help to reinforce or embellish them. Not only do they serve to justify the conservative belief system — helping to submerge intra-conservative conflicts and contradictions, and to persuade less ideological masses — they help segment and structure ideological space across the political spectrum.
Reacting separately and differentially to false beliefs about inequality, taxes and so on, as well as to false beliefs about race and gender discrimination, can actually intensify divisions between those focused on economic and social justice, much to the detriment of all involved. We’re seeing this play out in ongoing social media battles between diehard supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, for example. But the problem is much older, and more complex. The hope is that things getting worse — as they have under Trump — will ultimately lead to a situation where they must get better. But for that to happen, we need to get smarter about what’s going on.
On tax-related matters -- which are in the news right now, due to Trump’s frantic 100-day push to seem to be doing something — that same NPR/IPSOS poll contained two other striking Bizarro World findings. Not only did the poll reveal a mistaken view of past vs. present top income tax rates, it revealed similarly mistaken views on whether American tax rates were higher than Europe’s, and whether tax cuts for the rich lead to economic growth.
We’ve already dealt with one top tax-rate question, and the political logic there was quite clear: The misperception unified Republicans and divided Democrats. A similar but not identical logic derives from beliefs about whether tax cuts for the rich lead to economic growth. This question is less cut and dried than a simple fact-check comparing top tax-rate numbers from two different years. But as I pointed out last week, in a 2011 study Thomas Piketty and colleagues examined the correlation between top tax-rate change and average growth in 18 major nations for the period from 1975 to 2008 and found that it was "virtually zero and insignificant." They concluded that the top tax rate could be above 80 percent without impacting growth, as it had been during the golden days of the 1940s, '50s and early '60s.
The majority of Americans seem to have grasped this. They reject the notion that tax cuts for the rich spur faster growth by 63 percent to 37 percent. Republicans narrowly embrace this false view, however, by a 53-47 margin. That’s not nearly enough to make it a leading red-meat issue, but it is enough to make it palatable as part of a broader mix, which helps to explain why GOP politicians always talk vaguely about “tax reform,” while making sure that the rich get the lion’s share of the benefits.
As for views of American and European tax rates, Americans mistakenly believed by a large margin (46 to 26 percent) that average U.S. income tax rates are higher than in other Western democracies. (In fact, the OECD average is 36 percent, compared to 31.5 percent in the U.S.) Democrats were only slightly less likely than Republicans to believe this false picture. It reflects our inability to learn anything from the European experience, as well as our own self-absorption. None of that goes with an active seeking out of best practices, which would seem like an obvious necessity for good government in a changing world.
The shared bipartisan misperception could point to a double-edged sword, reflected in the population of disaffected voters who expressed interest in both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Trump would take the easy path with such voters, feeding their misperception and resentment. But Sanders would probably delight in bursting their bubble: “Guess what? Taxes are higher in Europe — but people actually get something worthwhile for their taxes, and they’re happier about it than we are. They get universal health care, they get paid sick days, paid maternity and paternity leave and month-long vacations or more.” It may be a harder path than Trump would take, but isn’t it at least worth starting that conversation?
Now let’s turn to questions of discrimination, where conservatives often express the view that the whole world is ganging up on them, as Bill O'Reilly did when he was finally booted off of Fox with more money than all his accusers, or as Rush Limbaugh does every hour he's on the air.
The exaggerated sense of anti-white discrimination was revealed most dramatically in a carefully constructed 2011 study by Michael Norton and Samuel Sommers of Harvard Business School and Tufts University, respectively. The findings were summarized in the paper's title, "Whites See Racism as a Zero-Sum Game that They are Now Losing." What they found was quite striking, but was also context-specific: Whites but not blacks saw discrimination against whites rising almost as fast as discrimination against blacks fell over the past 50 years, to the point of perceiving that whites now experience more discrimination than blacks.
Participants were asked for retrospective estimates of discrimination in past decades on a 10-point scale, which was then averaged for all participants by race. Both whites and blacks both saw anti-black discrimination declining from over 9 in the 1950s, and anti-white discrimination climbing from low levels. But the dynamics were significantly more extreme in the eyes of whites. Overall, they saw a clear, if imperfect, zero-sum relationship: Anti-black discrimination fell by a bit more than 5, while anti-white discrimination rose by about 3 over a 50-year period, ending up a full point higher than anti-black discrimination.
This worldview was summed up in a quote from then-Sen. Jeff Sessions that was used to introduce the paper: “Empathy for one party is always prejudice against another.” This is emphatically false, as highlighted for example in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s conversations with his white jailers in Birmingham, as recounted in his “Drum Major Instinct” speech. But it’s the essence of the racist, ethnocentric mindset that Sessions and Trump embody, and it’s implicitly accepted by whites in general, according to this study.
That finding should not be overgeneralized, however. We all tend to think about things in multiple, often contradictory ways. When asked point-blank about who faces discrimination today, whites as a whole generally say that blacks do. But that doesn’t invalidate the historical thought process that Norton and Sommers exposed, which is also evident from other approaches.
A multi-issue survey by the Public Religion Research Institute this February produced shocking signs of misperceptions among some demographic groups. First, the survey found that roughly "six in ten (58 percent) Americans say blacks face a lot of discrimination in American society today, while only three in ten (30 percent) say the same of whites." But it also found that "Republicans are significantly more likely to say that whites, rather than blacks, experience a lot of discrimination in the U.S. today (43 percent vs. 27 percent, respectively)," a pattern that mirrors what we saw in the tax perceptions mentioned above: Democrats specifically were far more likely to say that blacks experience a lot of discrimination, rather than whites (82 percent vs. 19 percent).
In fact, the survey found a distinctly patterned difference in perception between Republicans and the rest of Americans, but especially Democrats. The vast majority of Democrats (around 80 percent), see a lot of discrimination against LGBT people, immigrants, blacks and Muslims, and a majority of Americans as a whole agree. Far fewer see a lot of discrimination against whites or Christians (19 percent and 21 percent, respectively), while the percentage of all Americans saying the same is around one-third.
But the picture among Republicans is dramatically different. The percentage of Republicans who see a lot of discrimination is similar for all groups, ranging from 40 to 48 percent, except for blacks: Only 27 percent of Republicans see a lot of discrimination against African-Americans.
This suggests that the historic impression reported by Norton and Sommers is more of a latent notion among most white Americans, but far stronger among conservatives. For them, it is a go-to framework for thinking about discrimination today.
That same survey also found that white evangelical Protestants were likely to say that Christians faced more discrimination than Muslims, by 57 to 44 percent. As reported by the Christian Post, this survey has been widely misunderstood and misrepresented, and remains shrouded in statistical controversy. Even so, the correctly reported results are shocking enough; the belief that Christians face a lot of discrimination is more widespread among white evangelicals than the belief that Muslims do. Which suggests that narratives about anti-Christian discrimination must enjoy a broad circulation among them, which can help to determine what communities of like-minded people consider “common sense.”
Now let’s return to the Norton-Sommers finding that whites in general see anti-black discrimination declining so much that it’s less than anti-white discrimination. This contrasts with the PRRI survey evidence, which is far more typical of how questions are asked. But the Norton-Sommers findings are not anomalies. This framing of discrimination decline to a point of virtual irrelevance fits perfectly into Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s formulation of “colorblind racism,” which I wrote about in 2012.
“Colorblind racism” is a denialist deology with four key narrative frames for interpreting information (and explaining away unwanted information). One of those frames is "minimization of racism," typified by statements such as "It's better now than in the past," a perfect summation of the cognitive process highlighted by the Norton-Sommers study.
Bonilla-Silva’s recognition of the importance of framing narratives points us toward making sense of all manner of Bizarro World false perceptions, not just the ones dealing with race. The false perceptions regarding tax rates, for example, cry out for a similarly sophisticated analysis. Cognitive linguist Anat Shenker-Osorio came close to this in her 2012 book, "Don't Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense About the Economy," which I reviewed here.
Shenker-Osorio spent three years tracking and analyzing economic writing and speech across the political spectrum, examining how economists, politicians, media figures and ordinary people think about the economy. She focused her analysis on the metaphors involved, and those metaphors in turn revealed narrative patterns, which are much more coherently structured for conservatives than for liberals. Conservative metaphors fell into two broad categories: first, those reinforcing the economy as something natural and therefore best left alone, and the second describing the "why" of the economy as a moral enforcer, rewarding hard work and virtue and punishing those who fall short.
Progressives were far less organized in their use of metaphors — in part for reasons explained in "Asymmetric Politics," referred to above. But there was a coherent metaphor framework available — it just hadn’t been widely adopted. The metaphor is the economy as a human-made object in motion, perhaps a vehicle, which wouldn’t even exist without human involvement and requires conscious control to avoid unfortunate or even disastrous results. For example, Shenker-Osorio writes:
We can argue, for example, about the need to "rev up our economic engine." Likewise, we can debate whether the economy is "on the right or wrong track" or "stuck in a rut." Progressive economists like James Galbraith and Joseph Stiglitz have communicated in this framework by putting forth ideas about what should "drive" our economy.
Uncovering the progressive “why” of the economy took a lot more work, and it only became clear via anonymous interviews with progressive economists. But what she found was simple:
We explain ourselves by signalling that the economy is a means to facilitate journeys. And I believe it's our ticket to explaining the experiences (negative and positive) of the individual in the economy as well as selling our vision of how things can and should work.
There’s a good deal of potential power in this metaphoric framing, not least because "life is a journey" is "one of the most common and evocative conceptual metaphors in our language," reflected in expressions like stuck in rut, at a crossroads, back on track, going nowhere, moving along, lost at sea, in the home stretch, carrying baggage, etc.
If only our politics weren’t so asymmetric, and progressives devoted more attention to ideological affairs, the findings of Shenker-Osorio's 2012 book would have become part of every Democrat’s electoral playbook for 2016, and things might have turned out very differently. It’s too late for that now, but it’s not too late for 2020 — or perhaps 2018.
Metaphors, narratives and framing matter enormously, because they are the building blocks out of which worldviews are made. They can create fantastically wrong-headed, counterfactual worldviews, in which GOP policies — even Trump’s policies — make perfect sense. But they can also create worldviews that reflect what facts actually tell us. It takes work, but it can be done.
The big challenge that progressives face now is not only to put more effort into building accurate worldviews, but also to connect and harmonize the frameworks that accurately reflect facts in one policy realm — economics, for example — with those in another, such as racial justice.
Too much energy is still going into relitigating the 2016 election — the Democratic primary as well as the general election. What’s needed instead is a reality-based effort to forge compelling narratives that guide us toward policies that can solve real problems. Every time we see another absurd example of Bizarro World beliefs, we ought to redouble our efforts to tell the truth.